Street Vendors’ Eager Boswell Pounds Home a Pavement Tale

Sidewalk , by Mitchell Duneier. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 383 pages, $27.

How many times have you walked by sidewalk vendors on Sixth Avenue in GreenwichVillageand wondered:Whoexactlyare these people? And what exactly are they doing on the Village sidewalks,peddlingtheir wares, occasionally harassing women passers-by, relieving themselves in public? If you lingered on the thought for more then a moment, you might have concluded that somewhere amid the used books and magazines and catcalls there was a good story.

Well, there is. It’s just that when somebody actually decided to tell it, he thought it worthy of nearly 400 pages of small type. Is there an editor in the house?

Author Mitchell Duneier is a sociologist who became obsessed with learning more about the vendors on Sixth Avenue after he struck up a conversation with one of them, who asked him if he had ever read Jane Jacobs’ classic study of urban America, The Death and Life of Great American Cities . Inspired by the vendor’s citation, Mr. Duneier armed himself with a tape recorder and plunged into the vendors’ subculture, at times becoming a part of that culture, hauling and selling books with the subjects of his research.

The result is Sidewalk , a book whose mission Mr. Duneier states in his introduction: “I am committed to the idea that the voices of the people on Sixth Avenue need to be heard.” Mr. Duneier decided that the men behind the vending tables are not just small-time hustlers–the phrase is used in the best sense of the word–or sidewalk entrepreneurs, but today’s equivalent of the men and women Jacobs described as “public characters” in her book. The assertion would astonish Jacobs, who thought of public characters as shopkeepers and other small businessmen who help watch over a neighborhood, formed a trusting relationship with residents, and who acted as “strong proponents of peace and order.” These are not necessarily the characteristics we associate with street vendors, but Mr. Duneier earnestly implores us to change our way of thinking, to regard the vendors as part of the neighborhood quality of life, not as evidence of its decline.

That’s a challenging assertion, to say the least. To back it up, Mr. Duneier gives us a look into the lives about which we know nothing. Like No Shame in My Game: Working Poor in the Inner City , Katherine S. Newman’s study of hamburger flippers in Harlem, Sidewalk introduces us to characters we see nearly every day, about whom we have made many assumptions, few of them good. Mr. Duneier explains why some of those assumptions (the vendors are selling merely to feed drug habits, etc.) are just plain wrong.

Like Ms. Newman, Mr. Duneier brings no shortage of sympathy for his subjects to the study, and, as in No Shame in My Game , that sympathy results in mush-headed analysis and impractical prescriptions. Mr. Duneier believes that we ought to make our neighborhoods safe for street vendors by providing public toilets for their use and otherwise creating what he calls a “sustaining habitat.” That some of the sidewalk’s inhabitants traffic, knowingly or not, in stolen goods; and that some harass women, intentionally or not, seems of little concern. Mr. Duneier dismisses such complaints. Of the sellers of stolen books, Mr. Duneier says they are no worse than other people in publishing who lie, cheat or otherwise play fast with figures. “The norm of the [publishing] industry is that theft is O.K., but it can only go so far,” he writes. So if the sales departments can cheat, well, so can the vendors.

Mr. Duneier devotes an entire chapter to a word-by-word analysis of taped exchanges between the vendors and the upper-middle-class white women to whom they direct their greetings. (One of Mr. Duneier’s subjects says that women just have to “deal with” uninvited comments.) Using a technique called conversation analysis, Mr. Duneier concludes that the tension between the vendors and women can be traced to the fact that women feel guilty about ignoring these poor sidewalk characters. Guess you have to be a sociologist to figure that one out.

Mr. Duneier is right to say that those of us who pass these vendors, whether daily or occasionally, ought to hear their stories. The African-American men who stand behind their vending tables every day often turn out to be earnest, hard-working people trying either to rebuild their lives or to avoid the fate of those who sleep on the neighborhood’s sidewalks. Mr. Duneier writes that he “found strong evidence for the rehabilitative forces of sidewalk life in the self-respect these men maintained as they sold their scavenged magazines.”

Hurray for street-level capitalism! Surely there’s a moral here–not so much about the sidewalk but about work. But to get to the core of Mr. Duneier’s story, the reader must wade through transcripts taken from Mr. Duneier’s cherished tape recordings with his subjects. Some of the quotes and conversations are interesting, as when one of the vendors complains that his trade in selling used copies of Architectural Digest fell apart after the magazine was sold to “Candy Nast … or whatever.” But the pages-long transcripts suggest a researcher in love with his material and in need of an impatient friend with a swift blue pencil.

Mr. Duneier argues, in essence, that the vendors are part of the solution to what ails urban areas even in these days of low crime and high employment. And there indeed is much to be said about the work ethic of some of this subjects, and his contention that newly released prisoners (as many of the vendors were at some point) should be given more help adjusting to the world outside the prison gates.

But in giving voice to their stories, Mr. Duneier raises the very concerns he tries to dismiss, and he comes awfully close to a lament for the days in which street people could occupy the bathrooms of Penn Station without fear of the dreaded quality-of-life brigades.

It really isn’t hard to figure why many neighborhoods would prefer their public characters to be a little more in the Jane Jacobs mold. Even after we’ve plodded through the stories of Sixth Avenue’s sidewalks.